The Middle East Channel

Militant Attack on Yemeni Prison Frees Al Qaeda Inmates

Armed gunmen assaulted Yemen's Central Security Prison on Thursday, freeing at least 14 inmates potentially associated with al Qaeda. The attack on Yemen's main security prison, located in the capital Sana'a, allegedly began with a car bomb explosion at the prison's entrance. Militants engaged in a prolonged firefight with Yemeni security officials near the prison gates and reportedly used car bombs and grenades to break into the structure. Yemeni security forces report that seven policemen and three militants were killed in the attack, and several others were wounded. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Yemen is facing a growing threat from al Qaeda within its borders. The Yemeni al Qaeda branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has conducted numerous militant operations against Yemeni state structures in the past year, including a brutal attack against Yemen's defense ministry in December 2013.

Syria

Following a deadlocked second round of talks, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is reportedly advancing Syria peace talks between regime and opposition actors into a third round Friday. While the United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the peace talks, have promised to pressure their respective Syrian allies, disagreement among the powers has sharpened. On Friday Russia lashed out against the United States, accusing it of pursuing "regime change" in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked, "The only thing they want to talk about is the establishment of a transitional governing body." Disagreement also surrounds draft UN resolutions on Syria's humanitarian crisis. Russia has stated its rejection of a Western-Arab draft resolution calling for greater humanitarian access, and has proposed its own resolution focused on combatting "terrorism." In a strongly-worded statement, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos urged the UN Security Council to use its "levers" to ensure humanitarian access to Syrians, calling regime and opposition attempts to obstruct aid delivery "flagrant" violations of humanitarian law. On Friday, the United Nations voiced concern over a possible "major assault" by regime forces against the opposition-held town Yabroud, noting a concentration of military forces in the area. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that President Barack Obama has requested new policy options for Syria as the country's crisis worsens.

Headlines

  • Bahraini authorities arrested 29 people for "rioting and vandalism" charges Friday as hundreds of anti-government protesters sought entry into Manama, the nation's capital, on the eve of the Bahrain uprising's third anniversary.
  • Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man and wounded another Thursday amid a confrontation at the Gaza border.
  • Western powers will press Iran to surrender its capability to develop a nuclear bomb during next week's talks on a final Iran nuclear deal.
  • The IAEA reported on Thursday that Iranian crude oil sales rose by 100,000 barrels per day in January.

Arguments and Analysis

'(No) Dialogue in Bahrain' (Toby Matthiesen, MERIP)

"Looking at events since 2011, and indeed past decades, it is hard to be optimistic about the meetings between the crown prince and the opposition. It seems that, as in previous years, the ruling family is in need of positive news that the public relations firms hired by the government can spin as evidence of an 'ongoing reform process.' Parliamentary elections are supposed to be held in October, and the ruling family wants the opposition to participate. The last elections after the crackdown in 2011 were boycotted by the opposition and thus returned a loyalist parliament. As ‘Ali al-Aswad, London representative of al-Wifaq, explained: 'The ruling family tells us that there can only be reform once the opposition is in Parliament again. They essentially want us to forget three years of struggle and suffering, and go back to square one, to where we were before 2011.'

Even if al-Wifaq and the leftist groups in the opposition alliance were to agree to such a scenario, and that is far from certain, the people who are driving the protests in the streets every night in the largely Shi‘i villages will not be appeased. The demonstrators dream of the downfall of the regime, though they acknowledge that this outcome is unlikely any time soon. Only if genuine political concessions were on the table could they be persuaded to stop protesting. These concessions would include the release or fair retrial of political prisoners, in particular 13 leaders of unlicensed political groups who have received long jail terms for their role in the uprising. The ruling family is angry at these opposition figures, who called for their downfall, but these men will have to be included in the political process if there is to be long-term stability in Bahrain. Even President Barack Obama argued in May 2011 that 'the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.' At the moment, however, release of the 'Bahrain 13,' as activists have dubbed them, is anathema to the ruling family. Given the regional balance of power, the unconditional financial, military and political support of the GCC, the US, Britain and others, and the deep divisions within the ruling family as well as within the opposition, the stalemate in Bahrain is likely to continue for the foreseeable future."

'The Day After' (Timothy Kaldas, Mada Masr)

"Our first lesson: the regime is the regime is the regime. No, the army will not quietly voluntarily cede power and return to its barracks. No, a coup will not 'correct' the path of the revolution. No the use of force in politics will not produce a democratic political order and no we cannot hope to co-opt elements of the regime that oppressed us temporarily to deliver future long-term liberation. Freedom will not be granted and we must take it forcefully. Depending on the military to remove the Muslim Brotherhood was a mistake and has been the single greatest coup (forgive the pun) for Egypt's counterrevolutionary forces. Today, this is beyond dispute. Those who still seek to justify the July coup do so out of an inability to admit their mistakes. So long as we refuse to recognize this counter-revolutionary coup for what it is we will be left wasting our energy defending and justifying what is indefensible and unjustifiable rather than building a movement that demands a true, fully civil, state that democratically rules this country and defeats political parties we dislike with politics rather than massacres and mass arrests.

Lesson number two: institutional politics may be the game of the corrupt, but it is also essential to our future. If we do not build alternative political parties and engage directly in the electoral process and central policy debates that face this country, we cannot cry foul when we find ourselves and our fellow revolutionaries marginalized from the democratic process. It is true that democracy is more than elections, but that has never meant that elections and their results are irrelevant to democratic rule."

-- Joshua Haber

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Middle East Channel

Putin Backs Sisi’s Bid for Egypt’s Presidency

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday conveyed his support for Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's bid for Egypt's presidency, wishing him "luck" in the upcoming contest. Meeting with Egyptian authorities in Moscow, Putin told Sisi, "I know that you have decided to run for president of Egypt. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people." Though Sisi has not officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, his visit to Moscow is another sign that such announcement is imminent. Sisi's meeting with Russian officials aimed at finalizing a $2 billion arms agreement between Egypt and Russia. "Our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological co-operation between Egypt and Russia. We hope to speed up this co-operation," Sisi remarked on the meeting.

Syria

The Syrian National Coalition on Wednesday presented a 24-point plan consisting of "basic principles" to end the Syrian conflict. Surprisingly, the document makes no mention of Assad, and includes plans for the formation of a transitional authority and the eviction of all foreign fighters from Syria. The Syrian government delegation at Geneva has not yet responded to the proposal. In Homs, the humanitarian ceasefire has been extended for three more days to allow for the evacuation of remaining civilians. The city's governor, Talal al-Barazi, claims that 1,400 people have been evacuated from Homs since last Friday, but nearly 220 of those rescued are facing background checks by Syrian authorities. Meanwhile, fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces persists across the country. On Wednesday, Syrian government forces conducted airstrikes in Aleppo, killing at least 51 people, and resumed military operations against Yabroud, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains. Fighting in the Qalamoun area has forced many local Syrians to flee their homes for neighboring Lebanon. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 236 people on average have been killed daily since the beginning of the Geneva 2 peace talks in late January.   

Headlines

  • Fighting between Iraqi authorities and Sunni militants in Iraq's Anbar province has displaced up to 300,000 people since late December according to the UN.
  • Islamist militants seized part of the northern Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek and surrounding villages on Thursday, marking the Iraqi government's latest loss of territory to militants.
  • Israel is proceeding with plans to construct a nine-story Jewish seminary in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Arab East Jerusalem.

Arguments and Analysis

'Worse Than Mubarak: Egypt's New Constitution and the Police State' (Mara Revkin, Foreign Affairs)

"Egypt is not the first country in the world to declare a 'war on terror,' but it is one of the only nations to have written counterterrorism into its constitution. Last month, an overwhelming 98.1 percent of voters approved Egypt's new charter in a referendum marred by a heavy-handed military campaign to stifle dissent. The new constitution further marginalizes Islamists from political life and enhances the powers of the military and security services by, among other things, banning all political activity based on religion and giving the military veto authority over the president's choice of defense minister for the next eight years. But as problematic as those measures are, one of the constitution's most alarming sections has been overlooked: an unprecedented counterterrorism clause that lays the legal foundation for a police state that is a military dictatorship in all but name. 

Buried on page 62 of a rambling document that most Egyptians admit they have not even read is Article 237, the most sweeping counterterrorism mandate in any Egyptian constitution. It obligates the state to ‘fight all types and forms of terrorism and track its sources of funding within a specific time frame in recognition of the threat it represents to the nation and citizens.' Article 237 doesn't define 'terrorism' or the scope of the powers it grants the government, deferring them to future legislation. But for now, Egypt has no parliament. The military dissolved it last summer as part of its overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi. With new parliamentary elections not expected until later this year, legislative authority rests solely in the hands of the military-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour."

'The Tunisian Constitution: The Process and the Outcome' (Mohamed-Salah Omri, Jadaliyya)

"The Tunisian constitution is the outcome of a process of a struggle over what the post-revolution society is going to be like. The deadlock did not lead to open conflict, but instead, to negotiation and tradeoffs. The development of the constitution over the last three years is organically linked to the dynamics in the country over the same period. Its final version bears the traces of mutual distrust among the two main political poles. And just like any compromise, it opens room for interpretation. One thing is certain: the turn towards a religious state in Tunisia has been aborted. Now begins the work to consolidate and enshrine into laws the foundations of a democratic, civil, and just state. For this reason, the next elections are absolutely crucial to the future of Tunisia, to the role of political Islam, and to the region as a whole.

On a more prospective level, this process is ingenious. I am not sure how it came about or whether it had a precedent elsewhere. But it is certainly worth studying, and perhaps even emulating in similar situations, since it has been the determining factor in bringing about a decisive turn to democratic and civil rule in Tunisia. One further issue is worth bearing in mind. The national dialogue in Tunisia resulted in three simultaneous outcomes: an independent government whose members are not allowed to run for office in the next elections, a consensual constitution, and an independent election commission. All three have been designed to remove political parties from government until next elections. This has evened out the playing field and changed the rules of the game for the next elections. Ennahda is no longer driving the agenda, and its opponents can no longer continue capitalizing on opposing its policies. The outcome of this unprecedented situation is anyone's guess."

'No Stability in Syria Without Political Change' (Thomas Pierret, Carnegie Endowment)

"Many point to regional influence over the actors on both sides of the conflict as a reason for this blockage and, consequently, as the key to ending the deadlock. If Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the opposition, could be drawn into direct talks over Syria, so the argument goes, these regional powers might be able to balance their interests among themselves. They could then agree to symmetrically scale down their support to the warring sides, thereby dampening the conflict and creating the conditions for a settlement in Syria.

But the role of regional state players in the exacerbation of the conflict should not be exaggerated. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is primarily responsible for the conflict's sectarian turn. Rather, they have been dragged into a sectarian conflictthat long predates their rivalry. The conflict's transformation into an all-out war -- which dates to early February 2012, when the regime began using heavy artillery against Homs -- occurred before there had been any significant Saudi involvement on the rebel side, although Iran was already funding and supporting Assad's government at that time.

The Syrian conflict is first and foremost about sectarian power sharing inside Syria. It cannot be solved while Assad and his fellow members of a small religious minority, the Alawites, exert total control over the military-security apparatus. For as long as this fundamental internal imbalance remains, Syria will remain a black hole irresistibly attracting external players -- and attempts to resolve the conflict by focusing only on its regional dimension will be doomed to fail. Any credible peace effort requires negotiations that deal with the root problem and the demand for real political transition."

-- Joshua Haber

MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images